(Chapters 1-3 can be found here; press the j key to jump past this post if you’d prefer, or check here for more details.)
Ray’s foot caught on a tree root and sent her sprawling as she lost the woman’s hand. She collapsed, panting in the dirt, her lungs burning in her chest. They’d been running for ages, it seemed, and her knees were weak and her head was spinning and she couldn’t bring herself to face the fact that this road couldn’t possibly lead to Phoenix.
“We cannot stay,” the woman insisted. Her face was a mask of terror. “There are penalties for being past curfew!”
“Wait, how did your English get better all of a sudden?” Ray asked. The woman stared at her, uncomprehending.
“Tah te lyassapata Yra,” she replied, shaking her head. “Why only English?” Her voice was barely a whisper, but then her frustration seemed to surge, and she kicked the ground. “Raven knows English. She can say. Follow!”
“What penalties?” Ray asked. “What curfew?”
“I do not understand,” the woman said. She threw her hands in the air. “Please! I say please follow!”
Ray suddenly realized what the woman had said, and frowned. “What do you mean, Raven knows English?” Raven wasn’t a common name; maybe home really was ahead! “Who’s Raven?”
“So you forget both mother and daughter,” she said, her tone bristling with annoyance and something else. “There is no time! I am Wylwon; I am mother. Daughter is Raven. Come home!”
“You’re not my mother!” Ray said, thinking of the woman with the sad smile and colorless hair and a face she could never see clearly. “My mother is in Phoenix!”
“Rayai,” Wylwon said, pointing down the path. There were tears of frustration in her eyes. “I must go.”
“I’ll catch up,” Ray lied, scooting back to press herself against a tree trunk. She felt exposed, cold, scared—Wylwon’s face filled with grief.
“Dangerous,” Wylwon begged. “Please, come!”
“I’m not your daughter!” Ray snapped, wincing away from Wylwon’s grasp. “Leave me alone!”
Wylwon sobbed once before she seemed to catch herself. “I am so sorry,” she murmured, then looked up at the sky. Tears pooled in her eyes; moonlight fell in dappled patches on the pale soil. “Yrai, kywonnh hakkyllida tah. Tah te srenaspata. Kywonnh, gottenlida tah ny kyp. Kywonnh, yrai.” Wylwon looked at her hands, which were trembling. “No dangerous,” Wylwon whispered. “Not you.”
Ray shook her head, pushing herself against the tree. “I don’t know you,” Ray said, her voice shaking. “I don’t know what you’re saying! I can’t follow you!”
Wylwon wiped her eyes and nodded, choking back a sudden sob.
“So sorry,” she whispered. She pressed her fingers against her lips. “So sorry. Darkness—dangerous.” Wylwon laughed, tears slipping out of her eyes. “Why only English? Can’t say. Not follow?”
“Not follow,” Ray said firmly. “I don’t know where you’re taking me!”
“Rayai,” Wylwon said, pointing down the path they’d been following. She spread her arms wide, indicating the forest that surrounded them. “Dangerous. Cannot stay. Please, Laenyn.”
“I’ll catch up,” Ray lied again. “I need to breathe. Go on!” Ray waved her hand down the path. “Go!”
“You will follow?” Wylwon asked, taking a step down the path. She looked deeply torn; she bit her lip and seemed unable to break eye contact with Ray. “To Rayai?”
“Yeah,” Ray said, “Follow. Go!”
Wylwon sighed a deep, shaken breath, then swallowed. “At home,” she said softly. “Soon.”
Ray nodded, and Wylwon turned to walk down the path. She dragged her feet and kept glancing over her shoulder, looking back at Ray with tear-filled eyes. Finally, the path turned and carried her out of sight. Sagging with relief, Ray watched the empty path. The air was cold, but humid; Phoenix had been arid, not lush like this. Closing her eyes, Ray sank against the tree.
“What am I doing here?” she asked herself. The forest seemed to creak around her; mist settled on her face, cold as sweat after a nightmare. Shuddering, Ray curled in on herself. “I want to go home. Where am I supposed to go from here? Where the hell am I?” The word felt grown-up on her lips, and she blushed in the darkness. Opening her eyes, Ray let out a long breath and pushed herself to her feet. Her legs felt long and ungainly as she peered into the woods.
The forest seemed cluttered at the edges; shadows darted in and out of sight as the moonlight shifted and the branches swayed in a breeze that was beyond Ray’s reach.
“Look,” Ray said, her mouth dry, “I’m not scared of anything!” Her voice shook just enough to give away her lie. She swallowed again. “I’m not! I’m not afraid of anything in the whole world!” she shouted, and a bird took flight in the tree above her, making Ray shrink back against the tree again. Ray licked her lips. “I’m going to find a way home, okay? I’ll do it all on my own.”
The path went only two ways; toward death at the lake, and toward the terrifying unknown place that Wylwon had tried to drag her to. Taking in a deep breath that smelled something like honeysuckle and something like lemongrass, Ray went down the path that Wylwon had followed.
“I’m not going to get lost,” Ray said aloud. Her footfalls were too heavy, too loud; her heart pounded in her chest. “It’s safe as long as I’m on the path!”
A twig snapped as something darted through the underbrush; Ray caught a glimpse of a tiny, black shape running through the shadows. A wave of nauseating fear swept through her as another, larger animal gave chase. In the underbrush, something squealed, and she could hear lips and fangs smacking. Her feet began to run without her realizing it, and she almost stumbled and fell as she spun around to watch an owl ghost through the canopy above her, letting out a loud hoot that made Ray shriek and duck as she covered her hair.
“I’m not scared!” Ray shouted, trying to anchor herself. Her breaths came in gasps, but she forced herself to slow down and breathe normally. “I’m just looking for my home, okay? So you’d better leave me alone, or you’ll be sorry!”
The path was long and dark, and Ray had nothing to light her path. The animals that leapt deeper into the forest at her approach scared her at first, but as she got her bearings, she began to growl and shout at them. Each cry sent them further into the woods, until, finally, Ray was left in silence, with only her footsteps to remind her that she hadn’t gone deaf, and that she was still moving forward.
How had she gotten here? Ray didn’t want to think about it, but the question lurked at the edges of her consciousness, making her uneasy. There was no explanation for it—unless her pool had a hole that led to that lake, there was no way to make sense of it. Ray shivered, longing for the bright sunlight that had driven her into the water in the first place. Her hair and dress were still dripping, and even the slightest breeze made her shake like the last autumn leaf clinging to a tree.
Just then, a dim, blue glow fell on the ground before her, though the trees cut deep holes in the light. The light swayed, and Ray made out another shadow on the forest floor: a person held out an arm, reaching into the night. Ray froze, afraid to make any sound at all. Had Wylwon come back to help her? Ray didn’t know what Wylwon wanted from her.
But the woman that emerged from around the bend was much older than Wylwon. Her hair was a stark white and cropped close to her face. The woman’s eyes glinted in the blue light, glowing like a cat’s. Ray held her breath, wishing that she could become invisible.
The woman looked at her with a crooked, half-smile, and Ray let out her breath.
“Hello there, Ray,” the woman said. Her voice was raspy; Ray guessed that she was a heavy smoker. “I understand that you got lost in the woods.”
“How do you know who I am?” Ray asked, willing her voice not to tremble. “Who told you where I was?”
“Your mother is worried about you,” the woman laughed; it sounded like the barking of a dog.
“You know where my mother is?” Ray demanded, hope surging in her chest. The woman held out her hand.
“I even know where Phoenix is,” she said. “Come over to my house. I think that we need to talk.”
“Who are you?” Ray asked, though she stepped forward and reached, hesitantly, for the woman’s hand. “What’s going on?”
“All in good time, my dear,” she said, smiling again. Ray realized that the woman stood a good foot shorter than she did. “My name is Jauge. Jauge Haunobolon Kahn. Now, come this way.”
Ray’s hand dropped to her side, but she followed Jauge through the night.
“How do you know English?” Ray asked. “Wylwon didn’t know English. Where am I?”
Jauge said nothing, but held up the pale, blue lantern and padded, silent as a cat, down the path. Ray felt as though she knew Jauge from somewhere—from something like a dream. A chill crawled down her spine, but she suppressed the shudder. The path opened to their right, and Ray saw a house lit with a dozen little lanterns.
“Welcome,” Jauge said, hopping nimbly up the steps. Ray’s legs wobbled beneath her, but she followed Jauge through the door and into the house. There was a couch, a love seat, and a chair, all made of wood that had been painted white. There were padded cushions on them. The wall to her left and the wall ahead of her were filled with books from floor to ceiling, though they weren’t bound. The wall to her right was covered with large strips of paper that had complicated diagrams drawn in painstaking detail.
Jauge coughed, and Ray looked down at her. Jauge’s eyes were golden, with cat’s pupils.
“Contacts?” Ray asked. Jauge laughed, her pupils shrinking as they adjusted to the bright, clear light in the room.
“Have a seat,” Jauge said, motioning to the chair. Ray went toward it, then, feeling unnerved, sat down on the couch beside it. Jauge sat on the loveseat across from her, resting her chin on her hands as she examined Ray.
“I really should get going soon,” Ray said, unable to look away from Jauge’s gaze. “You said that Mom was worried about me.”
“Yes, your mother is quite concerned,” Jauge said, frowning a little. She flung a piece of charcoal at Ray. “Catch.”
Ray caught it, even though she nearly missed. It left black smudges on her hands.
“Motor reflexes seem to be functional,” Jauge muttered. Ray set the charcoal down on the table, watching as her fingers left smudges that were a deep green rather than black. “Look up,” Jauge said sharply. Ray obeyed, trying to dust her hands off. Jauge held up a string with a stone tied at the end. “Watch this, but don’t turn your head.”
“What are you doing?” Ray demanded, getting to her feet. Jauge set down the string and grinned.
“You hit your head rather badly, I’m afraid,” she said. Ray was good at spotting a liar—something about the way Jauge’s eyes dilated, the way she looked away, told her that Jauge wasn’t being honest with her. “When you dove into the water, I think that you struck your head on a rock. Didn’t you come to with a headache?”
“Yes,” Ray said, feeling her head for lumps until Jauge looked at her again. Her gaze seemed to cut through Ray; she dropped her hand at once. “But what’s it to you? Who are you?”
“Call me a friend,” Jauge said. “I see that you’ve forgotten some things.”
“How did I get here?” Ray demanded. “Don’t tell me that I’ve got amnesia—I don’t! I can remember everything just fine!”
“Fine then,” Jauge said, standing with a shrug. “If you remember everything, then there’s no need for me to explain anything. You ought to run on home, then. Good night, Ray.”
“Wait!” Ray said, holding her hand out and clenching it into a fist as Jauge walked away from her. “Wait, wait. Okay, so I don’t remember how I got here. I don’t remember how to get home.”
“You’re much calmer than I anticipated,” Jauge sighed, glancing at Ray sidelong. “I’d thought… But never mind what I thought. Take the path to Rayai if you want to find your home; Raven has all the answers.”
“Raven?” Ray repeated. “The brat? What’s she doing here?”
“She’s awfully close-lipped on the matter,” Jauge said, moving to straighten the books on the shelf. “You left a water mark on my couch, Ray.”
Ray turned and looked; she’d left an entire puddle. By the time she looked up again, Jauge was waving her hand, dismissing Ray’s apology before she’d even opened her mouth.
“It’s no matter,” Jauge said. “It’s time that I sew a new one, in any case. Raven lives with Wylwon. It’s too much trouble to explain it all to you—”
“But you said that we had to talk!” Ray said. Jauge’s smile made anger flare in her chest.
“That’s more like it,” she murmured. Clearing her throat, she continued in a louder tone. “And we really did need to talk. I needed to be sure you were…in control of yourself. Now that I see that you’re all right, I have no further need to inquire of you. You may go.”
“Go?” Ray repeated. She glanced at the door, at the dark night that waited beyond the single pane of wood. “But I’m ten, and it’s late, and I don’t know the way!”
“No matter,” Jauge said, turning away again. “I have other tasks at hand. I’m finished with you; there’s no further need to concern myself. Follow the path to the right, and you’ll be just fine.”
“This doesn’t make any sense!” Ray shouted. Jauge paused mid-gesture, reaching for a book on the highest shelf. “Who are you? Who’s Wylwon? What’s Raven doing here?” Ray punched the bookshelf as she came around Jauge’s side to stare down at her. Jauge’s expression was serene and pleased as Ray confronted her; Ray gritted her teeth. “You have to answer my questions! I know that you’re hiding something from me!”
“I owe you nothing, Ray,” Jauge said, Ray’s name rolling on Jauge’s tongue. Ray drew back a step. “I owe you absolutely nothing. I owe Wylwon nothing, as well. The contract has been broken; you weren’t to be taken to the lake, and here you are, dripping puddles on my hardwood floors and couch.” Jauge grinned, and Ray wanted to throttle her. The urge scared her, and she looked away to calm herself down.
“Stop trying to make me mad,” Ray muttered. Jauge’s grin vanished.
“That’s all you’re meant to be,” Jauge sighed. Ray fought back the fury that rose in her chest at Jauge’s condescending tone. “Now, take the path to the right.” A cruel glint appeared in her eyes before she could turn and hide it. “Make a lot of sound as you go; it’ll keep the monsters at bay.”
“There’s no such thing,” Ray snapped, then bit her tongue. “Give me a flashlight or something, at least.”
“There’s no such thing,” Jauge repeated, then chuckled. “I did promise Wylwon a lantern. Perhaps I owe her that much.” She laughed again, throwing her head back, and Ray stumbled backwards, nearly upending a side table. Tears appeared in the wrinkles around Jauge’s eyes. “Oh, that’s rich.” She managed to bring herself under control as Ray got to the other side of the couch. Jauge fixed Ray with her gaze, and Ray froze. “No, Ray. You’ll go by yourself. There are monsters on the path, ones that might devour you, and I couldn’t be more pleased. If you make it back to Rayai, ask Raven what you’re doing here, if you dare. I think it would be better to learn about where you are, personally. Memories never hold anything but grief.”
Ray looked at the ground, unable to look Jauge in the eye anymore. Guilt seemed to gnaw at her chest for the briefest instant—it was immediately replaced with bewilderment.
“Whatever,” Ray said. She glared at the ground and swallowed, steeling herself. “I’ll just go, then. You’re a crazy old woman with no heart.”
“None,” Jauge whispered. Ray walked to the doorway, breathing out slowly to ease the knot of heated tension in her stomach. Jauge raised her voice as Ray pulled open the door. “I’ll be checking up on you.”
(more excerpts and information)